Double Indemnity ★★★★½

Part of Noir-November

“I wonder if I know what you mean.” “I wonder if you wonder.”

The insurance business is an inherently slimy game. Doesn’t matter the type: life, health, automobile, disability. It’s all dirty. It can’t help but be. Everyone needs the product—everyone faces risks against which they must hedge—but the insurer only makes a buck by not paying out claims. All well and good if no claims come in, but people inevitably die or get sick, wreck their cars or have accidents. Claims are inevitably made. The insurer’s job ends up being not to provide the service it has just sold. It’s a bait and switch—a promise of assistance followed by a laundry list of reasons why that promise is null and void.

Where does the insurance salesman reside in all this? His job is to sell policies, of course; that’s how he earns his commission. And his job is not to deny claims. There are claims adjusters for that seedy task. Yet the salesman vends his wares knowing the charlatans backing them. And he knows—especially if he is employed by a single company rather than working freelance—that he’d best not place too many policies that pay out. It’s a bizarre tension: sell, sell, sell something designed never to be used. Not all that uncommon, to be sure, but the man shilling encyclopedias doesn’t often come back and refuse to let you open them.

Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) has been selling for years. First vacuum cleaners, then insurance of all stripes for the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company. He’s a smooth-talking cynic, able to turn on the charm as required of a good salesman. Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) sits on the other end of the spectrum, denying claims that the little man in his stomach tells him are phony. He’s no less a salesman than Walter, even if the job title is different—Walter sells security to his customers, while Keyes sells security to his shareholders.

Neither of them is half the salesperson that Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is. What does Phyllis sell? Sex, lust, greed, a hazily defined future. She’s happy to sell whatever needs buying, so long as it aids her forward motion—a must for any shark. Your everyday vendor is an opportunist, but Phyllis is a platinum blonde vampire, happy to sink her teeth into whatever luck throws in her path. Fortunately for her, Walter has just stopped by about her husband’s auto policy renewal.

Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is widely regarded as the quintessential film noir, and it’s easy to see why. All of the traditional noir elements are there: the femme fatale; the hapless, ethically flexible guy doing her bidding; the expressionistic lighting; the cigarette smoke; the fatalistic attitude; the hard-boiled dialogue; the Venetian blinds. Every nook and cranny is brimming with cynicism and treachery and beautiful black-and-white images of moral turpitude. It’s so over-the-top, you almost want to laugh.

Wilder and co-screenwriter Raymond Chandler (adapting James M. Cain’s novella) encourage that reaction with banter so witty it could easily reside in a screwball comedy, but laced with bitter acid. When Walter and Phyllis first meet and flirt relentlessly, him in the guise of a speeding motorist and her as the officer flagging him down, you laugh at the cleverness and audacity of the repartee, but also at its callousness—these are two people joking openly about committing adultery. When Keyes drops bon mots during Mr. Norton’s (Richard Gaines) inquiry into the death of Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers)—my favorite, in response to a query about a witness’ name: “His name was Jackson. Probably still is.”—you chuckle because it’s funny, but also because it’s morbid, treating a fatality as nothing more than a trifling nuisance to be swatted verbally, like a cat with a ball of yarn.

Wilder and Chandler’s many quotable quips are indelible and a huge part of Double Indemnity’s legacy, as is its admirably twisty plot of murder and betrayal. But these only mean so much on paper. A man agreeing to kill a woman’s husband for some approximation of love and a payday is a tale as old as time, or at least as old as David and Bathsheba. And Wilder knows this—he starts his story with a mortally wounded Walter reciting his confession into a Dictaphone, filling in Keyes on all the gory details. It’s a common noir choice, the calamity-followed-by-flashback, employed in everything from Laura to Mildred Pierce to Wilder’s own Sunset Blvd., and it has the advantage of casting a pall of doom over the proceedings. But it also makes clear what interests Wilder about his film: It’s not the destination, but the journey with these characters. Double Indemnity is, more than anything, a character study of deeply disturbed people operating in a rancid environment.

Selling Wilder and Chandler’s heightened, stilted dialogue while creating layered characters is no small feat. Fortunately all of the principal performers are more than up to the task. (I put the emphasis squarely on principal—the less said about Gaines’ shrill, grating turn as insurance executive Norton or Byron Barr’s work as hothead and potential fall guy Nino Zachetti, the better.) MacMurray, playing diametrically against type as the leering, amoral Walter, is superb, hitting all the right notes of libidinous scheming and the over-confidence of the slightly dim bulb and the eventual anxiety of the dead man walking. Even better is Robinson, his livewire energy perfectly suiting the high-strung Keyes, a man who has given himself a set of rules by which to live and thus thinks himself good (a status that, relatively speaking, he holds), even if those rules are really just a handbook for lifeguards manning Scrooge McDuck’s swimming pool.

But the best, of course, is Stanwyck. Having previously shown her range in three-hanky melodramas and romantic comedies and farces, Stanwyck slithers into the role of Phyllis like sex on wheels, perfectly playing every moment and casting a noir-friendly shadow over the entire picture (despite a surprising lack of screen time). Weaponizing her sex appeal, Phyllis cleverly plants seeds of marital discord and willingness to step out, laying out the plan for Walter while letting him believe that the machinations are all his—and when Walter begins to get cold feet, she has no qualms about turning this ostensible division of labor against him. Phyllis is a master manipulator, diabolical and cunning and endlessly enticing. On the page, she is interesting; in Stanwyck’s hands, she is unforgettable.

Unlike many noirs, where avarice and lust alone motivate the action, Double Indemnity looks askance at its characters and their motivations. Of course there is the insurance payout promised by the title, and of course there is the steaming sex appeal radiating off of Phyllis, but the characters seem deliberately cold toward the world and toward each other. Does Phyllis care about the dough? Does Walter? Does he want to spend his life with her, or vice versa? Their motives seem less about love and money and more about gamesmanship. They hold each other in marginally less contempt than the rest of the world, and see each other as suitable stepping stones to something else. Not a means to an end, exactly—there is no end for a venal schemer, no satisfaction for the heartless. A means to a way station, perhaps, before the next rube comes along offering the hope of additional advancement. It’s an awfully cynical take, but also weirdly hopeful. After all, as Roger Ebert said, noir is “[t]he most American film genre, because no society could have created a world so filled with doom, fate, fear and betrayal, unless it were essentially naïve and optimistic.” Double Indemnity flatters the knowing, world-weary pessimist in us all while giving us a jolt of hope. We’ll never be as bad as Walter and Phyllis—we’re not necessarily smarter, but at least we’re a little taller.

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